Lectionary Sermon for April 2 2017 (Lent 5 A) on John 11:1-45

If I had my time again as a teacher I like to think I would encourage all serious science and history students to read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road not taken” That poem concerns a traveller walking through the wood, encountering a point at which the paths diverged. One path was well worn and the other scarcely trodden. Our traveller decides to take the less worn path. The poem finishes:

…..Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

The assumption that heading in the direction everyone else is going is the safest may well be partly true, if only in terms of public approval, but in terms of breaking new ground to see things in new ways, whether it be in science, religion – or even sorting out whatever really matters in our personal lives, sometimes we may have to risk making our journey along paths that others would spurn.

Certainly echoing what everyone else says is unlikely to bring about enlightenment. In fact I would go further and suggest a casual affirmation of whatever a large group of people are saying or doing can draw us into patterns of behaviour and belief that sometimes work against the very principles we say are important.

It is true that many followers of Christ have done much to help their communities. Unfortunately it is also true that history is full of examples of bad behaviour excused by public acceptance in the name of religion.

Just to take one brief instance. When King Richard the first was about to set out on the crusades in 1190 a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment swept through a number of cities in the North of England. In one case, the Jewish population of York, estimated at the time to be of the order of 150 men, women, and children, took refuge in the Keep at the royal castle. Terrified by sounds of the mob outside, baying for blood, a good number of the Jews committed suicide. Those who didn’t were burnt to death.

With countless examples: of centuries of religious persecution, of slavery justified by Church leaders, of the selling of indulgences to frightened and illiterate peasants, of the storing of treasures on earth by a powerful Church, and the turning of a blind eye to serious injustices, sometimes even on a global scale, we might well wonder why more of those familiar with the obvious themes of the gospels were not brave enough to step back to cry “enough!” in the face of what the majority condoned.

We might pretend that such callous disregard for inhuman behaviour would not happen today. During the Second World War, the Jews, whose people suffered persecution while ordinary citizens in occupied countries looked the other way, might suggest otherwise. So too might those who continue to suffer because there are those who currently prefer turn a blind eye to today’s child poverty and for that matter, the present grossly unequal distribution of the world’s resources.

A superficial reading of today’s gospel story may let you conclude the raising of Lazarus offers nothing to such themes, or if it comes to that, seems almost irrelevant to any practical situation we are likely to encounter in the modern world. At the very least it would be unexpected in the extreme to encounter contemporary examples of people encouraged to rise from the dead and actually doing so.

Before considering the Lazarus story, pause for a moment on the following item that apparently made the US National News back in 1992.

A letter was quoted as reportedly sent to a deceased person by The Department of Social Services in Indiana. It read as follows:
“Your food stamps will be stopped, effective March 1992 because we received notice that you passed away.
May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a
change in your circumstances”.

But at least be honest. If you think that letter was silly, then perhaps you too think the bringing back to life of a person who has been dead for some time is very unlikely as an outcome.

Some less conservative Christians would argue that if the events surrounding the raising up of Lazarus are intended to be taken literally, if there was any truth in the account, perhaps he was not truly dead in the first place.

There’s an old tale that Pat fell from the scaffolding on a construction job and was knocked unconscious. Mike ran for the doctor. The doctor came. He took one look at Pat and said, “He’s dead.” Just then Pat came to and heard what the doctor was saying. Bleary-eyed and still groggy he said, “I ain’t dead.” “Lay down, Pat,” said Mike. “Lay down. The doctor knows best.”

In the case of Lazarus, since resuscitation of the dead is rare enough, especially for one apparently dead for four days, sceptics might even be inclined to the naturalistic explanation and say: in those days lots of mistakes would have been made. It is hard enough today without the best of medical equipment to be certain someone is dead – so presumably it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to have someone apparently resuscitated by calling their name.

Alternately those insisting on a literalistic faith might simply say: well in the case of Lazarus, Jesus was the Son of God and could therefore do such wonders anyway.

I have certainly heard both well travelled possibilities suggested. Well I don’t know about you, but there is a much less well travelled path that is there for those who choose to look.

Let’s look at some of the features of the story. Jesus called the man by name. The name happened to be Lazarus …and just from that particular name we might begin to guess the story is intended to teach at another level. Lazarus was a name used in other scriptures, but almost always the meaning of the name reminds us that there is a parable dimension intended.

We might for example remember that there was a parable about another Lazarus who dies and is saved by God…..(the poor man at the rich man’s gate). Lazarus is more or less the Greek form of the Hebrew word which is derived from the Hebrew אלעזר, Elʿāzār (Eleazar) meaning “God has helped“.[ I don’t know if the name was intended to be significant yet Matthew’s first hearers of his Gospel may well have thought so.

You see it was not just in the gospels. Some rabbinic tales feature El’ leazar (Greek Lazaros) walking in disguise on the earth and reporting back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s proscriptions regarding the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. A friend of mine calls this, “being the mystery shopper”!

I wonder what the mystery shopper would report about our society.

The next point we may have noted is that although John claims Jesus raised Lazarus, it most certainly was not in the sense of a resurrection to eternal life. True, John records Jesus as saying Jesus to Martha ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone believing in me, even if they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’ (11:25-26).

However a closer reading of this miracle (or perhaps parable?) shows the eternal bit was not intended to apply to the revival of Lazarus in a literal sense. Lazarus may have come walking from the tomb, yet there is no suggestion that he was now eternal in that he was now going to live forever. As far as we know, even if apparently brought back to life, in due course he would once more be dead.

The alternative is that Jesus was referring to some lasting quality rather than quantity of life, a quality so important that it could be attributed the term eternal. If this were intended, we might guess Jesus was using “life” in a metaphorical sense to imply that those who adopted the way of life he was advocating would thereby open themselves to living in a totally new way…perhaps even one in which death was irrelevant.

To see the story as a case of a dead man literally brought back to life is to stay with the limited understanding of Mary and Martha. We ought to be able to do better than that, because with the extra detail supplied by John there is good reason to think Jesus was talking about life at a deeper level.
I implied earlier that there were aspects of the less travelled path that might make it less likely to be popular. In this case, the popular view seems to be that Jesus performed the miraculous result by himself. This is comforting because it then makes minimal demands on us.

Most sermons and commentaries I have encountered relating to this story focus on Jesus’ actions, so it is easy to overlook a tiny, yet I would suggest an important detail intended for John’s readers.

Remember when Lazarus emerges, festooned with the wrapping bandages and cloths intended for the wrapping of the dead body, Jesus asks those present to remove the bandages that Lazarus can be freed to move. If this too is part parable, perhaps he is saying that we shouldn’t look to Jesus to do it all for us. Just as Lazarus needed others help before he was free to display signs of life, the suggestion is that before what Jesus referred to can take effect others too have a part to play.

We are not all called to moments of high drama, but the notion of helping free those we encounter from the difficulties that stop them living life to the full is at the heart of practical Christianity.

Just as Christ met people as they were, blind, leprous, rejected or as in Lazarus’ case, dead to the possibilities of life, the call into fullness of life is also a call to interaction with those whose claim to full life is tested by encounter.

When that thoughtful and embarrassingly honest Anglican priest, Richard MacKenna, was trying to put his faith into words in his book God for Nothing, he wrote (P183)

Ask me why I am a Christian and I say, “I don’t know” What called me into the cloud of unknowing, the dark wood? Because I want to find out who I am? Because I want to know how to love? All I know is that the quest is risky and painful…and yet there is something there…light at the end of the wood.”

In his book questioning standard Church thinking, I believe Richard MacKenna was walking the equivalent of Robert Frost’s road less travelled. I suspect at the end, he too would be able to say “…that has made all the difference”.

As for me, my autobiography is yet to be written. And what will yours conclude?

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